Academy of Prince students write, perform and collaborate.
“I think we have a lot more knowledge to be shared with the world. We just have to find a way to share it, and writing songs and playing music might be a good start.”
There’s no telling what ideas can come from a backyard barbecue—especially when it comes to Prince fans. Shortly after the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s death on April 21, 2016, some of his fans gathered, and, as sadness and a yearning to keep his philanthropic legacy alive, an idea was sparked.
Lifelong Prince fan and Paisley Park regular Heidi Vader kept the idea burning and, in 2017, she formed Purple Playground, a nonprofit for youth music education. From there, educator, DJ and vocalist Willie Adams had the idea for Academy of Prince (AOP), a free monthly and summer music program for teens to write, perform and collaborate musically.
Excelsior’s Makennah Reisinger, 14, attended the program in 2021. “This was a space to try new things and be yourself with no one judging you,” says the Minnetonka Middle School eighth grader. “We all felt like we belonged and could just be silly and have fun.” Vader tapped into her 35 years of music connections to form a powerhouse of speakers and teachers. “It’s so touching how many [positive responses] we get,” says Vader, Purple Playground director. “It’s about continuing Prince’s legacy of giving and educating the next generations—all taught by musicians who played with him, authors who wrote historical books about him and others who collaborated with him.” AOP students learn about Prince and his musical influences and collaborate during the two-week camp, writing and recording in a professional studio at the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul.
The program stretches students beyond their comfort zones, which unleashes their voices and creativity. “It takes a lot of work and practice to be good and make something sound good,” Makennah says. “A lot of kids my age have a lot to say but don’t know how to say it. I think we have a lot more knowledge to be shared with the world. We just have to find a way to share it, and writing songs and playing music might be a good start.”
“Academy of Prince is a revolutionary approach to music and arts-based education,” Adams says. “We don’t foster competition. We show our students and model for the community the power of collaboration. We see our differences as strengths and gifts, not deficits. I believe students and the communities we serve will be impacted for generations to come because, like Prince, we are about using music to unite, heal and uplift our world.”
Makennah plans to attend AOP this year, and she encourages others to give it a try, as well. “I would 100 percent recommend AOP,” she says. “I have met some of the best friends through the program and have grown as a better person and musician.” Her mother, Laurel Reisinger, echoes the endorsement. “As a mom, this program was just the thing my teen needed at the perfect time,” she says. “It was amazing to watch the friendships that evolved in only two weeks.”
Elisa Fiorillo and Adrian Crutchfield (who was a guest artist and a music supervisor liaison) joined Vader and Adams on the Purple Playground board of directors. Singer and songwriter Fiorillo was a backup vocalist with Prince and The New Power Generation from 2009–2014. She was on Prince’s world tour in 2010 and worked with him until 2014. Fiorillo joined the board after seeing firsthand how AOP impacted the kids. “The last time I worked with these amazing kids, I saw the huge transition from the time they arrived to how they left,” she says. “At first, [students were] insecure to share their ideas, and by the end, kids were going off on their own and creating songs all by themselves and performing them.”
Fiorillo is motivated by her memory of Prince. “The thing that drives me is knowing in my heart and soul that Prince would be very proud of me,” she says. “He loved kids, and he loved sharing his music with kids. He inspired me to write, and I want to do the same for the kids of Purple Playground.”
Crutchfield, saxophone artist and The New Power Generation HORNZ liaison, toured with Prince and was the last horn man to perform and record with Prince. “I believe we are all responsible for passing it, whatever ‘it’ is in you, onto the next generation; no gimmicks, no smoke and mirrors or hidden agendas,” he says. “Prince was big on passing it on. He taught me, and I feel I owe it to him and all my other teachers to pass on the knowledge.” AOP empowers students to look inside themselves for what’s already there. “Everyone has creativity and expression in them; the trick is finding the confidence and audacity to share it with the world,” Crutchfield says. Purple Playground is funded through donations and grants, most recently from Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and Minnesota State Arts Board.